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Watch 19-Year-Old Stephanie Mills Prepare for ‘The Wiz’ in 1975: EUR Video Throwback | WATCH!

Stephanie Mills at age 19 sits at her kitchen table
Stephanie Mills at age 19 sits at her kitchen table – screenshot from Wazee Digital

*On this day in 1975, The Wiz premiered at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway.

A 19-year-old Stephanie Mills debuted as Dorothy in the all-Black version of “The Wizard of Oz,” opposite Hinton Battle as the Scarecrow, Tiger Haynes as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as the Lion, Dee Dee Bridgewater as Glinda the Good Witch of the South, André DeShields as the Wizard, Mabel King as Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West, Clarice Taylor as Addaperle the Good Witch of the North, and Phylicia Rashad, who appeared in the original Broadway company as a Munchkin and a Field Mouse, while also understudying the role of Glinda. She can be seen below at the 0:18 mark.

Mills, straight out of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, had a whole career before stepping into Dorothy’s shoes. As a little girl, she started out singing gospel at Brooklyn’s Cornerstone Baptist Church. In 1968, at age 9, she appeared in the Broadway musical Maggie Flynn, and at age 11 won Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater for six consecutive weeks.

In 1973, she signed a deal with Paramount Records and released her first single “I Knew It Was Love.”

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She then signed with Motown for two albums, but neither produced a hit single.

Meanwhile, during the early 70s…

Ken Harper
Ken Harper – The New York Public Library Archives

Ken Harper, the program affairs director at New York’s WPIX Radio, began thinking about producing a new musical version of L. Frank Baum’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” but within the context of Black culture, and with soul music. William F. Brown signed on to write the book, Charlie Smalls would contribute the music and lyric, and actor/dancer/choreographer Geoffrey Holder was hired to direct.

Yes, this Geoffrey Holder.

Before becoming 7Up’s iconic pitchman in the 80s, the Trinidadian-American was a principal dancer for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and began his film career in 1957 with an appearance in “Carib Gold.” In 1973, Holder played James Bond villain Baron Samedi in “Live and Let Die.”

But the people holding the purse strings for “The Wiz” were against hiring Holder to direct, believing he lacked experience. Gilbert Moses was hired to replace Holder, but during tryouts in Detroit, he did not impress (to say the least) and Holder – with fresh ideas for staging as well as costume design – was brought back in.

Below, Holder explains how he swooped back into Detroit and used both “psychology” and KFC to boost morale among the cast and crew.

Ticket sales were so low during the show’s journey from Detroit, to Baltimore, to Broadway, that Harper reportedly had closing notices ready to post on opening night, Jan. 5, 1975. Despite all of the production drama, Holder was nothing but upbeat in this footage from that night.

Harper’s bad feelings about the Broadway opening were spot on, as The Wiz received poor reviews from mainstream critics. But soon after its New York debut, an editorial urging Black folk to see the play appeared in the New York Amsterdam News, the oldest black newspaper in the country. The writer suggested that white critics might not understand The Wiz’s references to Black culture or appreciate its use of Black vernacular and expression of Black pride. It was therefore up to Black people to see the production and spread the word.

With assists from the New York Amsterdam News editorial and the buzz it sparked in the Black community, ticket sales for The Wiz suddenly took off. The show went on to win seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Choreography (George Faison), Best Costume Design (Holder), Best Director of a Musical (Holder), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Ted Ross), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and Best Original Score (Charlie Smalls). The Wiz eventually moved from The Majestic Theatre to The Broadway Theatre on May 25, 1977, and wouldn’t close until Jan. 28, 1979, after 1,672 performances.

André De Shields, who played the title role, would later write, “It was Geoffrey’s masterful people skills and embrace of magical realism that metamorphosed The Wiz from caterpillar to butterfly.”

Below is video of Mills preparing to star in “The Wiz” at age 19, followed by her August 1977 interview on the “Today” show, where film critic Gene Shalit asks if rumors are true about her dating Michael Jackson, who famously replaced Hinton Battle as The Scarecrow for the film version released in 1978.

The situationship between Mills and Jackson indeed turned romantic, according to Mills in a 2015 interview with SiriusXM’s Bevy Smith for NBC’s film adaptation “The Wiz Live.” She sent everyone in the studio into a tizzy when Smith asked about Diana Ross replacing her for the film adaptation, and Mills casually mentioned that she got to visit the film set everyday via co-star Michael Jackson, because “at that time I was dating” him. Watch below:

Mills of course went on to become a legendary Grammy-winning recording artist with five No. 1 R&B hits, including “Home” from The Wiz, as well as “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love”, “I Feel Good All Over”, “(You’re Puttin’) A Rush on Me” and “Something in the Way (You Make Me Feel).” Her 1981 song “Never Knew Love Like This Before” earned a Grammy, and her albums “What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin,” “Sweet Sensation” and “Stephanie” went either gold or platinum.

Below, listen to her 1989 interview with Radioscope, where she tells us about working with producer Angela Winbush, gets candid about not feeling attractive at times and expresses insecurity over her height. She also talks about the end of her marriage to Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel (at 16:04), her opinion on the singing talent of “dance” artists Janet Jackson, Pebbles and Paula Abdul (the 11:30 mark), working with Teddy Riley (at 7:53 and 33:50) and wanting to record in the future with Luther Vandross and her ex-boyfriend Michael Jackson (at 35:30).

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